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Can the eclipse unite a fractured country? For one day, maybe

From the Ready for the eclipse? 7 things to know and do for once-in-a-lifetime event Monday series
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Eclipse Science

In this Aug. 3, 2017 photo, amateur astronomer Mike Conley practices with the telescope he will use to document the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, at his home in Salem, Ore. Conley is part of a project led by the National Solar Observatory to have dozens of citizen-scientists posted across the U.S. photograph the celestial event in an effort to create a live movie of its path that will help scientists learn more about the sun's corona. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

Gillian Flaccus

The centerline of Monday's total solar eclipse comes ashore about 10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on the rugged coast of Oregon near a place called Depoe Bay, where 40-ton gray whales spout and feed in the shallow water.

At 2,000 mph the line, like one down the middle of a highway, streaks inland south of Salem.

It goes over an extinct volcano in Idaho, a Stonehenge-like sculpture of junked cars in Nebraska, and crosses the Missouri River blocks from where Jesse James was killed.

Weather permitting, the center of the 70-mile-wide band of totality will deliver the most seconds of complete eclipse, experts say, as it links a fractured country for one day on a path of history, geography and the racing shadow of the moon.

"When the Earth reminds us that there are tremendous forces out there beyond our control, it helps us to remember who we are," said Cheri Ward, 56, who has a blueberry farm outside McClellanville, South Carolina, near the path's center.

Along its 2,500-mile journey, the line crosses the winding Missouri River eight times.

It traverses the old steamboat port of Arrow Rock, Missouri, home of painter George Caleb Bingham, who portrayed life on the river in the mid 1800s.

The line crosses the Cumberland River twice, and the Mississippi once at a coal terminal on the Illinois side, not far from where Elzie Crisler Segar, creator of the cartoon character Popeye, was born.

It passes Mantle Rock, Kentucky, where in 1836 hundreds of starving Cherokees waited to cross the Ohio River during their forced migration west on the "Trail of Tears."

And it crosses the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the route of the Pony Express.

In Tennessee, it goes over Rome, but skirts Athens, Sparta, Carthage, Lebanon and Macedonia.

In western North Carolina, it passes just south of the ancient oaks and poplars of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, named for the man who wrote the poem "Trees" and was killed in battle during World War I.

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree . . .

And it exits the country just before 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time over Five Fathom Creek, in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, with its two aged lighthouses, northeast of Charleston, S.C.

The line crosses baseball fields, golf courses, tennis courts, interstate highways, parking lots, driveways and cemeteries, including one in Hopkinsville, Ky., where the 20th century mega-psychic Edgar Cayce is buried.

It passes places such as Massacre Mountain and Hell Canyon, Mosquito Creek and Tadpole Island, Dawg Patch Trail and Hound Dog Drive.

While the band of totality is miles wide, "it really matters how close you are to the center," said Geneviève de Messières, of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"Along that centerline you have a better chance of experiencing the full glory of the eclipse," she said.

One place that will see maximum time of totality, according to data complied on the website Eclipse-chasers.com, is the old railroad hamlet of Makanda, in southern Illinois.

Totality: more than 2 minutes 40 seconds.

The event has "taken a little town that's not on anybody's map to . . . the center of national conversation," said Jeremy Schumacher, who works at the Eclipse Kitchen restaurant there.

Makanda, population about 600, now seems like "the center of the sun, and moon and Earth and everything," he said.

This is the first coast-to-coast eclipse in the United States since 1918, the Smithsonian Institution said.

Millions of Americans are expected to converge on totality to observe, clog traffic and munch pancakes, barbecue and pizza. Amtrak is running an Eclipse Express from Chicago south to Carbondale, Ill.

Commemorative T-shirts and eclipse glasses by the thousands have been made.

Many schools will be closed, including at least one that has declared Aug. 21 "a snow day."

Some locales are wary of the hordes of eclipsers, fearful that small communities and infrastructures will be overwhelmed by hungry people who also have to go to the bathroom.

Others see an opportunity to preach, make money or welcome visitors to forgotten waypoints of American history and landscape.

A moving scene in Missouri

In 1852, renowned artist Bingham painted a picture titled "The County Election," which is believed to be a portrait of Arrow Rock, Mo., where he had lived a decade before.

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George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham lived in Arrow Rock, Mo., and used the faces of many of the village's residents in his painting, "The County Election." Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks

It's a bustling scene outside a small-town polling place in Middle America in the mid-1800s, with politicking, inebriation and children playing in the dirt street.

It was one many Bingham paintings of those times that portrayed a bygone world of stump speakers, fur traders and flatboatmen on the river.

Arrow Rock was then a thriving port of about 1,000 people on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, and one of the first stops on what would become the Santa Fe Trail for settlers heading west.

"People would come across the river by ferry to Arrow Rock and rendezvous with the rest of their party, get supplied and head out," said Sandy Selby, executive director of Friends of Arrow Rock.

(The centerline of the eclipse goes right over the friends' headquarters on Main Street, netting two minutes and 39 seconds of totality.)

The town saw heavy river traffic, and Selby said that there is at least one steamboat wreck just offshore. She said that experts have identified many local figures in "The County Election," plus the white dog in the foreground, Scamp.

Then the Missouri moved.

"Every time it would flood, the river would change course a bit, and eventually it moved about a mile away," she said.

Then came the railroads, but not to Arrow Rock, she said. The Civil War further hampered trade, and two big fires wrecked the business district. Many residents left.

Today, Arrow Rock's population is 56, "on a good day," she said.

But 13 of its buildings have been restored. The cottage that Bingham built in 1837 is part of the Arrow Rock State Historic Site. And the whole village is a National Historic Landmark.

"We've found a new life as an historic venue . . . that really was unexpected and wonderful," Selby said.

And now the eclipse.

"We've got someone coming in from Ireland," she said. "We've got some people coming in from Canada. . . . We've had people calling from all over. They want to be here. Or they want to be somewhere on the line."

"If you're coming from Ireland, you don't want to be a mile away from the line," she said. "You want to be on the line."

"My hope is that when it happens, that people will be quiet," she said. "That for two minutes and 39 seconds we'll have silence, and we'll take that time to just reflect on how special this is."

In Nebraska a Stonehenge of sorts

On the high plains of northwest Nebraska, north of Alliance, where Army pilots trained in World War II, a mysterious circle of gray objects rises from the flat expanse of farmland.

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Carhenge

The objects closely resemble Britain's 4,000-year-old Stonehenge, a mystical place of pilgrimage for neo-druids, solstice watchers, and legions of tourists.

But this monument is made of 39 junked cars.

It's Carhenge, perhaps the most cosmic spot in the country to watch the eclipse. And it has an impressive two minutes and 28 seconds of totality.

Carhenge was assembled in 1987 by Jim Reinders, the son of a Nebraska tenant farmer, to honor his late father, Hermann.

Reinders, 89, a retired oil industry engineer now living in Texas, resided in London in the 1970s and was fascinated by Stonehenge.

After his father died, he came up with the idea of Carhenge, and in June 1987, members of his family convened on land he had inherited from his father.

"With about 30 of us working at it, why, in one week later, we had Carhenge up and running," he said.

A year later, he hired a painter to spray paint everything "Stonehenge gray," he said.

He used cars because stones are heavy and not abundant on the farm.

"Cars are more or less the same size," he said. "They had the added advantage [that] they had wheels on them. So it made it a lot easier to move them around."

Plus, "there's plenty of junked cars in America," he said by phone earlier this month. Many farms in the area had old cars parked outdoors, and the owners were happy to get rid of them.

Construction went well, except when an AMC Gremlin that was poorly welded in placecame down in a storm. It was put back with stronger welds, he said.

Reinders plans to be at Carhenge on Monday, reportedly along with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and thousands of others.

But the creator of "Stonehenge west," as he calls it, sees no mystical aspect to the eclipse.

"It's an astronomical fact that's been predicted for hundreds of years, and they know when the next one will be," he said.

"I don't see any significance to it whatsoever," he said. "It's just an event that will happen every 99 years, or whatever.

"Let's enjoy it."

The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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